Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/24/15
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
February 24, 2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:13 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It's nice to see you all. You just got the readout of the President's meeting with the Amir of Qatar. They had an opportunity to speak for themselves to readout that meeting.
Other than noting that, I don't have anything at the top here so we can go straight to questions. Jim, do you want to get us started?
Q Sure. Thank you. First of all, the Keystone bill is arriving at the White House today, or already has.
MR. EARNEST: That's what I hear.
Q Can you tell us when the President intends to veto it, as he promised?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned yesterday, the President does intend to veto this piece of legislation and we intend to do it without any drama or fanfare or delay. So I would anticipate that we'll have an update on this later on today.
Q So you expect it today? We can expect it today?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, you can count on that today.
Q Coverage or paper statement?
MR. EARNEST: We'll have a statement through the usual channels.
Q No photo spray or anything?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q It's in the pipeline. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Wouldn't want that news to leak out some other way. (Laughter.)
Q You physically have the bill now?
MR. EARNEST: It's my understanding that Congress did send the text of the bill to the White House this morning.
Q On DHS funding, as you know, the Senate Majority Leader has offered to split the bill so that there's a separate vote on the immigration policies of the President and another one on the funding itself. Senator Reid has objected to the sequencing of that. He wants to vote on the clean funding bill first before you go on to immigration. Does the President have a preference on that? Does the President want to at least just get this issue off the table and it doesn't matter on sequencing? What's the White House's position?
MR. EARNEST: The official White House position is that the President served in the United States Senate for a period between 2004 and 2008, in which he readily weighed in on legislative maneuvers and strategies related to the complicated procedures that essentially guide the legislative process. At this point, it's the responsibility of Congress to figure out how to perform among their most basic functions, which is to ensure that the budget for the Department of Homeland Security gets passed in a timely fashion.
Q But, Josh, this is his party and it could essentially end up closing one of his executive agencies.
MR. EARNEST: The President has -- well, Republicans spent a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of effort going around the country about making the case why they should be put in charge of the United States Congress. They succeeded in that effort, and they persuaded the American people to hand them the responsibility of the majority of both the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate. And the question now facing Republicans is how they're going to use that authority and whether or not they're going to do it responsibly, in a way that's in the best interest of the country and whether or not it's in the best interest of our national security.
And the fact of the matter is I can't find anybody who thinks it's a good idea to shut down the Department of Homeland Security, which means that congressional Republicans should simply do their job. And they should pass legislation that would fully fund the Department of Homeland Security for the remainder of this year.
Q And Senator McConnell is offering a clean bill like you demanded, so why not get behind this bill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't seen the particulars in terms of exactly what he's put forward, but ultimately it will be up to the individual members of Congress to make their own decision. But, again, congressional Republicans are in charge. They're in the majority. And this is something that they sought, and these are exactly the kinds of problems that they hoped to have the opportunity to solve, and we look forward to them doing it.
Q Next question on Iran. The contours of the deal that are being discussed would allow Iran to potentially consider moving toward a nuclear device after 10 years. And I'm wondering if that's a period of time -- I know that parts of the discussion have been about a 20-year period before -- that seems to be the compromise number. Is that a number that we can trust the Iranians to stick by and not to begin producing a nuclear device after that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I'm loathe to get into the negotiating details of the position that is adopted by the United States and our international partners when they are sitting across the table from the Iranians. However, I will say that there was a report today indicating that we were negotiating for essentially a 10-year deal. Those reports are not correct. That does not reflect the accurate negotiating position of the United States and our international partners.
But the second part of your question is important as well. It goes to whether or not the United States and the international community is prepared to start trusting the Iranians. I think the point, Jim, of these negotiations is to not just reach an agreement with the Iranians, but reach an agreement with the Iranians that we can verify on a continuing, ongoing basis; that there is ample reason for the international community to not put a lot of faith in the claims of the Iranians when it comes to their nuclear program. It was just a few years ago that there was this covert nuclear facility in Iran that had previously been undeclared that did yield some evidence indicating that Iran was trying to secretly develop a nuclear weapon.
So what we need is a clear agreement from the international community and the Iranians and an agreement that is verifiable. And any part of an agreement will include ready access by the international community to ensure that Iran is living up to their end of the bargain.
Q But you're saying that reports that the deal would clamp down on Tehran's nuclear activities for at least 10 years and then slowly ease those restrictions, that isn't correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not willing to get into the specific details of our negotiating position. But there are some who are making the case publicly that we are in favor of a deal that would just be 10 years in duration, and that is not accurate.
Q On Keystone, the veto is one thing, but I'm wondering, how long is it going to take the administration to finish its review of whether the project is in the national interest? Is that something that's going to happen today as well?
MR. EARNEST: This is a review that is being conducted by the State Department, and so you can contact the State Department for an update on the timing of that review.
Q The President isn't going to announce something on that as well today?
MR. EARNEST: Again, the review is being conducted by the State Department, so you can get an update from them about their timing.
Q Secondly, there are reports that the DOJ is not going to press charges against George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Can you confirm that?
MR. EARNEST: I can't confirm that. So you should check with the Department of Justice about any announcement they may or may not be planning to make at this point.
Q Okay. Lastly, on Ukraine, Prime Minister David Cameron said he would deploy military personnel in the next month to Ukraine to help with training, and I'm wondering if that's something that the U.S. is considering -- any measures to help Ukraine with military training?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about this. The first is that the United States continues to be concerned by ongoing violations of the Minsk Implementation Plan by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. We have seen repeatedly that these Russian-backed separatists have continued to violate the terms of the agreement despite the fact that they made firm commitments in the context of an immediate and comprehensive cease-fire.
In addition to that, we have seen Russian military vehicles -- I'm sorry -- we have seen Russian military personnel have participated in the recent attacks on Vuhlehirsk and Debaltseve. And the Russian military has put in place a robust command structure in eastern Ukraine. We know this because separatist fighters have also previously acknowledged that they are operating under instructions from Moscow.
Russia and the separatists it backs have acted in direct contravention of the Minsk Implementation Plan that they agreed to. And we continue to call on all signatories to carry out the commitments undertaken in the plan in the September Minsk Agreements fully and without delay.
The other thing that we're concerned about is that there are reports that Russian-backed separatists have prevented members of the OSCE special monitoring mission from getting full access to the conflict areas. There are even some reports that indicate that those separatists have made grave threats against members of the OSCE monitoring team. So we have seen continued behavior that is in direct violation of the agreement that Russia and the other parties signed just a couple of weeks ago.
So we continue to be concerned about the situation in Ukraine. I don't have any updates in terms of assistance that we will provide to the Ukrainians at this point other than to remind you that we have already provided substantial assistance to the Ukrainian military and we have already provided substantial economic assistance to the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people. And there was additional assistance the administration believes we should provide and that is why we have called on the United States Congress to pass legislation that would offer additional loan guarantees to the Ukrainians to strengthen their economy while they try to deal with this continuing instability in the eastern part of the nation.
Q Thanks. Back on DHS, if I may. Senator McConnell is apparently shopping a compromise on the Hill right now to try to move forward on that. Is the White House looking to find a compromise, or are you still certain you've got to have a clean bill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, the administration has been clear that we stand ready to compromise with members of Congress, including Republicans, when it comes to trying to address the many problems caused by our broken immigration system. In fact, we spent a lot of time over the last couple of years trying to reach that compromise, and in the United States Senate, we succeeded in doing so, that we got more than a dozen Republican senators to sign on to a compromise bipartisan immigration reform proposal. That was a proposal that was blocked by House Republicans, even though we knew that had the House Republican leadership allowed it to come to the floor, it would have passed with bipartisan support.
So we do stand ready to have those kinds of conversations with members of Congress. But we shouldn't compromise our homeland security just because Republicans want to pick a political fight. That certainly is not responsible. It's not consistent with the Senate Majority Leader's aspirations to send a signal to the American people that Republican leadership shouldn't be "scary -- that's his word, not mine.
So we're hopeful that Republicans will do the responsible thing, that they'll join with Democrats to support a full-year extension of funding for the Department of Homeland Security prior to the deadline. And then if there are Republicans that want to have a legitimate conversation with the administration about how to solve the problems that are created by our broken immigration system, then we stand ready to do that. We'd even host those meetings right here at the White House if they would like.
Q Thanks. As far as the meeting today with the leader of Qatar, there are reports that Qatar has lent support to Hamas in the past. Do you think there's an issue with the President meeting with the leader of Qatar while not meeting with the leader of Israel?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, I can tell you that -- let me say a couple things about that. As it relates to Prime Minister Netanyahu, as we've said this many times, there is no foreign leader with whom the President has spent more time than Prime Minister Netanyahu. And that is a testament to the deep and ongoing security relationship that exists between the United States and Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has said that the level of security coordination between the United States and Israel under the leadership of President Obama is unprecedented, and we certainly would share that assessment.
As it relates to the leader of Qatar, I can tell you that there are a number of important interests that we share with Qatar. Like all partnerships, especially in this region of the world, the United States does not necessarily agree with the Qatari government on every issue, but we have the kind of relationship that allows us to be frank and open about where we disagree and why. But the bottom line is that our interests with Qatar converge somewhat more often than they actually diverge; that Qatar has been a significant help on a range of regional issues, including Afghanistan, Iran. As you know, the Qataris have even agreed to host a regional training site for the moderate Syrian opposition. So we certainly welcome the efforts of the Qataris to participate in this broad international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
We also know that the Qataris have indicated a willingness to work closely with us in other aspects of our strategy against ISIL, too, particularly as it relates to terror financing. And this is a focal point of the administration's efforts to shut down terrorism across the globe, but it certainly is an important part of our strategy for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL -- that if we can shut off the financing of their operations, we're going to add even further strain to their ability to carry out the terrible things that we've seen them do. So we're working closely with the Qataris on that aspect of our strategy, too. And I think that is precisely why the President convened the meeting with him in the Oval Office today.
Q On the same subject, do you acknowledge that Qatar has been a significant source of especially private donations to ISIS and other terrorist groups?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, what we acknowledge is that there are areas where we disagree with the Qataris, but more often we find that our interests overlap, that our interests with the Qataris are consistent. And whether it's our work with the international community to try to ease the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program, to dealing with the situation in Afghanistan, or even the ongoing campaign against ISIL, that there are a variety of ways in which the United States has been able to work effectively with the Qataris to protect and advance our national security interests in the region and around the globe.
Q And for a long time, the Qataris have been accused of trying to play it both ways -- of welcoming hate preachers, as we might call them, to their biggest mosque, of continuing the financing, and only really trying to stop it when pressure is put on. So can you say whether pressure is on them now to stop that financing and whether there has been any progress either in that area or with supporting these people that come in and preach against Jews and other faiths?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I can tell you that the administration does continue to work closely with the Qataris to try to improve our efforts to shut down the financing for terror operations. And the Qataris have been an effective partner in that endeavor so far, but we do believe that there is more that they can do and more that we can do together to shut down the financing of terror operations around the globe.
Q And was that made clear today to them, that they can do more?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have a detailed readout of the meeting. It just ended. But you can check with my NSC colleagues to see if you can get a better sense of how this issue was discussed in the meeting.
Q And shortly after the video came out of the burning of the Jordanian pilot, it was said that this could be a way to bring in more of the Arab participation. Do you anticipate that happening? Because really it's only been about 3 percent of the airstrikes have come from Arab partners and other countries. Do you see that growing? It just seems like it hasn't changed for the duration of this.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I think there are a lot of different ways to evaluate this, and certainly the easiest way to evaluate this is to take a close look at the way in which Arab countries have participated in our military operations against ISIL. And as we pointed out on a number of occasions, there are important Arab partners who are taking action alongside American military pilots to strike ISIL targets in Syria. And we certainly welcome that contribution and it is making a tangible contribution to our ongoing effort and to our broader strategy.
There also was an important role for them, for our partners in the region, to play when it comes to shutting down ISIL financing; that there is a lot of money that's moving through that region -- whether it's the black market for oil to other sources of illicit financing for their operations.
We're also working with the Qataris and other regional partners to combat ISIL's efforts to move foreign fighters into that region. You'll recall that the President convened a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss this important issue last fall. We continue to work with our partners around the globe and in the region on those efforts. And we also work with Muslim leaders in the region to try to counter the extremist ideology that ISIL propagated on social media; that there is an important role for more moderate voices in the Muslim world to stand up and to use their influence to try to counter that messaging. And we certainly welcome the influence of political leaders in that effort as well.
Q And really quickly, on Bob McDonald misstating his past service -- does that bother the President or the administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I can tell you that, obviously, as you know, Secretary McDonald went to West Point. He served in the 82nd Airborne. He is somebody who, when he was in the military, completed jungle, arctic, and desert warfare training. So he is somebody who understands firsthand the sacrifice that our men and women in uniform make on a regular basis.
He is also somebody who understands firsthand about why what he said about his service was wrong, and that certainly is why it was appropriate for him to apologize. But there is no reason to think that the mistake that he made should interfere with his ability to continue to lead the fight for our veterans and to continue to implement the kinds of reforms at the VA that are so critical to making sure that our veterans are getting the benefits that they deserve.
Q A couple of quick follow-ups. First, yesterday I asked you about whether or not the President would be calling congressional leaders to the White House to try to work out some agreement to prevent the Homeland Security shutdown from happening. Is that going to happen?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know of any meeting like that that's planned at this point. But like I said, I believe that members of Congress are still returning from their week-long recess last week and once they're all back in town, if it's necessary for the President to bring some of them down to the White House and have a conversation about this, then we'll do that.
Q Do you think it would be productive given what you just said about how the President has been out of the Senate for a number of years, doesn't want to get engaged in these questions of procedural --
MR. EARNEST: I think the point is that it's their responsibility to work this through. And again, Republicans spent a lot of time trying to persuade the American people that they should be entrusted with the reins of the United States Congress and be entrusted with the power of the purse. And we need to see if they're going to step up and assume responsibility.
Again, there are probably going to be some times over the course of this year where Republicans in Congress are going to have to make some really tough decisions and take some really difficult votes. I'm not really sure why funding the Department of Homeland Security and making sure that that funding doesn't lapse is considered a difficult task. But again, this is a challenge for Republican leaders to decide if they can demonstrate to the American public that they're going to continue to act in the country's best interests.
Q On the Iran nuclear talks, you said that the White House is not negotiating for a 10-year sunset, basically, a 10-year -- a point where Iran would be able to become effectively a nuclear power. Is the administration, is the White House, the President opposed to a timeline that is so short? You said you're not pushing for it, you're not arguing for it, you're not negotiating for it. But is that a non-starter? Is that something you would not agree to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Jon, I've used this analogy on other occasions, or on other topics. It's not something that you and I can negotiate from here, that ultimately we're going to have a conversation with the Iranians about the way that they can resolve the international community's concerns with their nuclear program.
At this point, there's not more detail that I can share about the negotiating position of the United States other than to say that those reports from earlier today were not accurate and did not accurately reflect our negotiating.
Q I understand why you wouldn't want to negotiate it here, obviously, but this seems to be a pretty fundamental question. The report that you now said was inaccurate, but I'm trying to get how much of -- I don't want to use the word red line, but how much of an absolute non-starter that is. The report suggested a deal taking place with the Iranians after a period of just 10 years, where it would basically have no restrictions on their ability to enrich uranium. And I'm just asking if that's -- I know that's not the position you're trying to get, but is that simply unacceptable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what is unacceptable is the idea that Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon. And that has been our policy for quite some time. And the whole purpose of these negotiations is to make sure that Iran doesn't obtain a nuclear weapon. And the reason for that is that it would be terribly destabilizing for the region. It could precipitate, and I think we could even say is likely to precipitate a nuclear arms race in what is already a very volatile region of the world. That would not be in the best interests of American national security, and it certainly would not be in the best interest of our closest ally in the region, Israel.
So that's why we're engaged in these negotiations. And once we have -- the President has indicated that the time for conducting these kinds of negotiations is running short, and so once we've sort of reached the other end of these things, we can have a more detailed conversation about what that deal is.
Q And can you confirm --there was some confusion about the deadline. Is the deadline for these talks March 24th, as White House officials have suggested in the past, or is it March 31st?
MR. EARNEST: You mean March 24th or 31st? I know that it's -- I've always heard people say it's the end of the month. So let me see if I can get back to you with a specific -- if there's a date certain.
Q And just one quick thing. The Republican leaders have said that the President vetoing Keystone would be a political move to please environmental extremists. What is your response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the reason the President will veto this legislation that has passed the Congress is that it circumvents a longstanding administrative process for evaluating whether or not infrastructure projects like this are in the best interest of the country. And it does not represent a specific position on the pipeline itself. It just merely says that the benefits, the consequences of building that pipeline should be thoroughly evaluated by experts and through this administrative process that has existed for decades and has been used by previous Presidents of both parties to evaluate similar infrastructure projects. And that's the proper path moving forward, but does not represent a final disposition of the Keystone project.
Q I know the Vice President and the Secretary of State will be out of town next week during the start of -- actually during the whole AIPAC conference. Will an administration official be addressing the AIPAC conference at all?
MR. EARNEST: We'll have more information on that soon. Obviously we've received an invitation from AIPAC and we'll get back to them.
Q So we should expect just a name -- it's not whether you're going to have an administration official attend the conference. It's just a matter of figuring out which administration official actually addresses AIPAC?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think -- we have received the invitation from AIPAC. We're considering the invitation. And once we've made a decision we'll get back to AIPAC about who the speakers will be, and then we'll be in a position to talk about it.
Q The President has expressed more optimism about bipartisan -- (inaudible.) Can you explain whether it's just Democrats coming? Who's been invited and what the President's hopes are for that legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Alexis, I would anticipate that we'll have a list of lawmakers who participate in that meeting. Both Democrats and Republicans were invited, and I would anticipate that there will be a bipartisan group of members at the meeting. The President, as you point out, does view this as an opportunity for us to find some common ground to move the country forward; that there are some Republicans who have raised similar concerns that the President himself has discussed about our criminal justice system, about reforms that could make our system more consistent with our values of fairness and justice and equality that certainly the President believes are really important, and I know that many of the members -- that all the members who are participating in the meeting also believe are important.
So this is an area that's worthy of careful consideration and consultation because there might be an opportunity for Congress to act in bipartisan fashion with the strong support of the President to put in place reforms to our system that would make our nation more just. So the President is looking forward to that discussion. I would anticipate that we'll have, like I said, a list of the members who participate and at least a general overview of that meeting once it concludes.
Q Josh, yesterday, Governor Fallin, after she met with the National Governors Association, with the President, reported that the President said he was "open to crude exports from the U.S." Is that an accurate characterization of what the President told the governors? And is that sort of a shift in position from what he has previously said?
MR. EARNEST: I was not in the room when that exchange occurred, so it's hard for me to accurately reflect the way the question was asked and the way it was answered. What I can do, though, is assure you that the policy of the administration has not changed, that crude oil export regulations are administered by the Department of Commerce. That's where these kinds of regulations are considered. And I don't have sort of change to announce at this point.
Q Following up on Iran, is it the administration's position that you would want a permanent agreement, one that has no timeline whatsoever, to meet the goal that you said repeatedly, which is to ensure there's never a development of a nuclear weapon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we want is we want an agreement that's verifiable and we certainly want one that all parties live up to. And again, in terms of what kind of time constraints are placed in the context of the negotiations and how long people would be signing up, that's not something I'm going to prejudge or be in a position to talk about from here. Obviously, this is the subject of ongoing --
Q -- answer suggests that the administration is open to a timeline of some kind. It has to be one or the other.
MR. EARNEST: I recognize that. I guess what I'm trying to say is I'm just not going to be in a position to talk about the details of our negotiating position with the Iranians. And the reason for that is simply that we have agreed on the front end with our international partners who are joining us at the table and with the Iranians that we can have an open, candid dialogue in the context of these negotiations with the goal of trying to reach an agreement. And attempts to try to influence those negotiations by talking about them outside of the context of the negotiations are not going to be helpful to that process.
But my point is, we will have an opportunity at some point, -- on or around the end of March, we'll have an opportunity to discuss either the framework for an agreement that's been reached, or we'll be able to discuss why we were not able to reach an agreement despite the common-sense, reasonable proposal that's been put forward by the international community. And your interest in understanding exactly what was put forward is a reasonable one, but one that I can't discuss right now.
Q Well, let me just ask you this: Have you reconciled in your own mind how you could describe to the country an agreement that had a timeline that also met the standard of Iran never obtaining a nuclear weapon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, once --
Q They're almost irreconcilable. Can both be true?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the most important thing is to figure out what exactly Iran will agree to, and understand whether or not --
Q -- whether or not Iran can obtain a nuclear weapon.
MR. EARNEST: -- and whether or not it will resolve the international community's concerns about their efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon.
So that is the focal point of these negotiations. And again, once we are in a position to evaluate either an agreement that has been reached, or an offer that was made an then rejected by the Iranians, we can talk in more detail about the negotiating position that was assumed by the United States and our international partners, and how it was possible to reconcile that with the policy goals that we have stated, the most important of which you've reiterated here, which is to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.
Q On Secretary McDonald -- a couple of veterans groups have said they accept his apology, but said it raises questions in their minds about his trustworthiness. And they don't talk just about this, but they've also made mention of misstatements that the Secretary may have intentionally or unintentionally made about how many people have been fired and held accountable in some of the implementation of reforms. Is the President satisfied that Secretary McDonald is trustworthy and is, in fact, implementing all of the reforms and legislation he recently signed?
MR. EARNEST: The President believes that Secretary McDonald has a very difficult task in front of him to try to bring much-needed reforms to the VA. And this is a task that generations of VA secretaries have tried to accomplish. Many of them have made progress, and the President is pleased with the progress that Secretary McDonald has made so far.
But again, this is a very difficult challenge. And the reason that Secretary McDonald has been successful so far is that not only does he bring with him some private sector management experience that I do think is useful when trying to get his arms around a large government agency like this and manage it efficiently, or at least as efficiently as possible, this task also reflects his own personal commitment to these issues that starts with his own military service to our country. But even after he left military service, Secretary McDonald was committed, even using his free time, to try to support military families, our veterans and their families. And that's a testament to his character. It's a testament to what drives him, and it's why he's well suited for this job.
But I don't think there's anybody who sits around -- who wakes up in the morning thinking, boy, my job is really hard today, I wish I could just go walk in Bob McDonald's shoes because that sure would be a weight off my shoulders. I think everybody recognizes that he's a got a very difficult task in front of him. And that's why his skill and personal commitment to these issues are so important to his success.
Q When the VA was in a lot of trouble, the President tasked Rob Nabors to go over and assist. Is he still there? Is he still working in carrying out essentially a conduit role from the White House to the VA, and serving as that sort of presidential intermediary or liaison with this new Secretary?
MR. EARNEST: Rob is still working at the VA and is still providing the Secretary and other members of the senior leadership at the VA the kind of advice and expertise that they continue to benefit from. So we certainly are pleased to have Rob still serving his country and our veterans over at the VA.
Q Last question. Senator McCain raised his concerns about the Choice Card, which is part of the legislation the President signed. We had a couple of questions at the budget briefing, but it doesn't appear that every member of Congress is satisfied that this Choice Card is going to be implemented in the budget and the financial flexibility is going to be there for veterans to obtain care outside of the system if they meet the criteria. Can you assure veterans, from this podium, that, in fact, financing will be there and the Choice Card will be implemented fully as written by Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not intimately familiar with this issue, so let me take this question for the VA and see if we can provide you some data to help you understand our position on this.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to take you back to Keystone for a moment. Is there any way in your mind, if the process plays out -- you've made the point that this has sort of circumvented longstanding processes -- if they were to play out, in your mind, is there any way the President signs off on the Keystone XL?
MR. EARNEST: That possibility still does exist. This is an ongoing review that's being conducted by the State Department. They're going to evaluate the impact that this project would have on the country. They're going to have the opportunity to evaluate the impact that this project would have on contributing to climate change. And it certainly is possible; the President will keep an open mind as the State Department considers the wide range of impacts that this pipeline could have on the country, both positive and negative. And so we'll see what happens once the State Department has completed their - what's called the national interest determination - what essentially is a report evaluating whether or not the completion of this infrastructure project would be in the best interest of the United States of America.
Q You said as far as Israel was concerned there's a deep, longstanding security relationship between our country and theirs. I'm curious, as it relates to the Iranian talks, is it fair to characterize a level of frustration on behalf of the administration to this notion that some people are cherry-picking bits and pieces and maybe as an outside actor attempting to influence the negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think you asked about this last week, I believe, where I did express some frustration that we have seen some people take information that they had obtained about the U.S. negotiating position and cherry-pick information to try to distort the public impression of exactly what that negotiating position was. So that is why, at least, even in the context of the questions that I've taken today, that I've been loathe to get into the details of the U.S. negotiating position. Everybody will have an opportunity to evaluate that soon enough.
Q But as the details come out, albeit you're saying they're not accurate, you can understand why many perhaps in Israel might say, you see, this is exactly what we were talking about to begin with.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what people around the globe can be confident of is that the United States is negotiating with one clear goal in mind, which is to make sure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. And we are working closely with the international community to achieve that goal. That was the goal of the sanctions regime that Congress passed and this administration implemented in close coordination with our allies around the globe, to compel the Iranians to come to the negotiating table and try to resolve the international community's concerns with their nuclear program.
And those talks are underway, and we certainly wouldn't want anything that I say from here or any other efforts to try to distort our negotiating position to negatively impact our ability to try to bring those negotiations to conclusion in a way that yields a strong and verifiable agreement that's clearly in the best interest of not just the United States and not just Israel and not just our international negotiating partners, but is clearly in the best interest of the whole country -- or of the whole globe.
Q Quick housekeeping. As far as AIPAC is concerned, there is zero chance that someone won't be going to AIPAC, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, they have extended an invitation to the administration; once we have decided how we're going to respond to the invitation, we will let them know. And then once we let them know, we'll let all of you know.
Q But you will accept it, someone is going, right?
Q Somebody is going, right?
MR. EARNEST: I hear you. It does seem just as a matter of common courtesy, it seems like we should respond to their invitation first and then we can talk about it publicly.
Q So you're not suggesting that no one is going?
MR. EARNEST: I certainly didn't come close to saying that.
Q Yes, you did. (Laughter.)
Q I want to ask a question a different way. Given the President is going to make obviously the final call on XL, is there no communication between the White House and State Department about when you might expect their report?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know -- I can't account for every single conversation that occurs between the White House and the State Department. I think it's certainly possible that somebody in the White House has gotten an update in terms of how much longer it would take the State Department to compete their review, but I'm not aware of those conversations. But even if I were, I'm not sure I'd be in a position to announce for the State Department what their timeline is going to be. If they're prepared to announce a timeline then they'll announce it.
Q As you know, there are a lot of people anxious about this. They waited six years and there are others who are concerned about a political implication for 2016 depending on when the President does make his decision. Is the expectation that once the State Department report comes out, the President will make a decision fairly quickly? Does he feel like he needs to do that quickly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn't want to prejudge the outcome here, but I would anticipate that once the review has been completed that there would not be a significant delay in announcing the results of that review and ultimately making a decision on this project.
Q But on DHS, as you know, there are critics who have suggested that the White House has overstated the potential impact if there's a delay in funding, saying that because everyone who is essential will still be working that it won't make a significant difference to national security. The White House's -- you and others have said that obviously an impact would occur. And we heard from some people, including the FEMA Director yesterday, about what that would be. So given that, what kind of preparations are underway for a possible shutdown? And is the White House confident that DHS is ready, should that occur?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I can tell you that it's not just the administration who is making the case that shutting down the Department of Homeland Security would have a bad impact on national security. I know that Congressman Peter King was on television today making exactly that case. So he doesn't often agree with the administration, but at least in this case he's making the same case that we are. He's not the only one who's making that case.
I do know that the Department of Homeland Security has been engaged in a planning process to ensure they are prepared and can take the steps necessary to try to mitigate the impact of a shutdown of that department. But as I've mentioned before, the impact of that shutdown will include tens of thousands of Homeland Security personnel being furloughed. It will include many Homeland Security officers showing up for work to protect their country but not getting a paycheck on time. And that doesn't seem particularly fair, and I'm not sure why anybody thinks that would be a good outcome for the country.
So we've been clear that this is not a good thing. But DHS is doing the responsible thing, which is, even as they try to talk to members of Congress and encourage them to fulfill their responsibility and pass a budget, they're also engaged in the planning to try to mitigate the potential impact of shutting down their agency.
Q Can you give us a sense of what's involved in that planning?
MR. EARNEST: I can't, but they probably can.
Q A couple questions, Josh. A few days ago, a Mexican citizen was killed by two police officers in Pasco, Washington. Is the President aware of the incident? Or the White House? What's his reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Can you say it one more time?
Q A Mexican citizen was killed in Pasco, Washington, the state of Washington. My question was, was the President aware of the incident, or the White House, and what is the reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I've certainly seen the news reports. I haven't talked to the President about it. I don't know if he is aware, although knowing he's an avid consumer of news, I assume that he is. But I don't know a lot of the details of the case beyond what I've read in news reports. So for questions about sort of where that investigation stands, I'd refer you to the local authorities there.
Q I have a question about Ukraine. You said earlier that you continue to be concerned by these violations. And the President said when Merkel was visiting that if Russia continued to do this he would seriously consider sending arms to the Ukrainian government and also possibly increasing the sanctions. So you're seeing these violations. Now what are you going to do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we're doing right now is we're continuing to support the ongoing efforts to try to implement this agreement. And I know that there was a call that was scheduled among the foreign ministerial level of the four groups that have been involved in these negotiations -- the Russians, the Ukrainians, the French and the Germans --
MR. EARNEST: I believe that was yesterday -- I don't know if it was yesterday or today, but I know that those efforts are ongoing and we continue to support them. And the consequences that you cited of failing to live up to those kinds of commitments continue to be on the table. So we're going to continue to closely watch the situation with the President, the Vice President, and other senior members of the team, continue to be in close touch with our partners who are working this situation and we're going to monitor it closely. But certainly there is the potential of offering additional assistance to the Ukrainian military or ramping up our sanctions regime against the Russians.
Q Look, right now they're violating it. How long will they go on violating it until you do something? I'm just wondering, how long do you give this process? I mean, they're not living up to it now. You're monitoring it. How long are you going to monitor the violations before you do something?
MR. EARNEST: We'll we're going to continue to try to work diplomatically to resolve this situation. And that has been our approach from the beginning, which is that it is our view that the only way we're going to resolve this is not with a military solution but with a diplomatic solution. And that is why we're continuing to press that option.
But, you're right, at some point you have to start considering some other alternatives, which is why the United States has already provided substantial military assistance to the Ukrainian military. It's why we've already worked with our partners in Europe to put in place a sanctions regime and isolate President Putin and -- or Russian political leadership. And that was a response to their earlier violations of generally accepted international norms.
But, yes, the potential of increasing our assistance to Ukraine and increasing the costs that are sustained by Russia has the potential to be implemented. But we're going to continue to watch this and make decisions accordingly.
Q Well, is it also possible that these violations could continue and you decide to do nothing else?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think our level of pessimism is not quite that high, but we'll --
Q You say there's the potential that you might do something else.
MR. EARNEST: That's right.
Q I'm just wondering, if the violations continue, might you also decide that it's not worth doing anything else on sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Based on our past response to Russia's provocations and failure to live up to generally accepted international principles, I think you could rightly conclude that it's unlikely that that is the outcome. But as we see Russia continue to destabilize eastern Ukraine and continue to take steps that are clearly in violation of agreements that they've signed, that the risk of further sanctions only increases.
Q Josh, I want to come back to Iran one more time. I just want to be clear about what you're denying. You're denying that the United States has proposed a 10-year agreement, is that right?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding of the reports -- that I will confess that I have not seen firsthand -- but my understanding of the reports indicate that -- they wrongly indicate that the agreement that's being negotiated right now will be 10 years in length, and that's not our negotiating position at all.
Q But you're not denying that there is some substantially longer agreement of which there is a 10-year opening phase to it, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I'm reluctant to do is to sort of wade in on a detailed assessment of where the negotiations currently stand.
Q I'm not asking for details. Just are you denying something longer?
MR. EARNEST: That's certainly more detail than we've talked about so far. But again, we will have an opportunity in the coming weeks to consider either to evaluate an agreement that's been reached, or to evaluate an agreement that the Iranians walked away from. But suffice it to say the United States continues to negotiate from the position that there should be an opportunity for the Iranians to ease the international community's concerns about their nuclear program to, in a verifiable way, make clear to the international community that they will not acquire a nuclear weapon.
The Iranians have said many times that that is consistent with their view and with their national policy. It's the view of the international community that they just need to be able to verify that for the international community. And ultimately, if we can come to an agreement around those outlines that would be a good outcome for not just the United States and Israel, but it would be good for the world.
Q Can we follow on this?
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, Connie.
Q At this point, would you still call on Prime Minister Netanyahu to cancel the speech before the Congress? And if so, would the President meet with Netanyahu?
MR. EARNEST: Connie, we have not called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to cancel his speech. And we've indicated the reason that the President will not meet with him during this visit to the United States is that it comes just two weeks before his election. And in order to avoid even the appearance of interfering with a democratic election in another country, the President will not meet with the Prime Minister. But I would anticipate that at some point after the elections, regardless of who wins, that the President will convene a meeting with the leader of Israel and will continue the very close coordination on security issues that has characterized his relationship thus far with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Q As the United States and her allies try to come to an agreement with Iran about its nuclear ambitions, what is this administration doing -- how is it engaged to reduce nuclear weapons in nations that actually do have these weapons, like China and North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, et cetera?
MR. EARNEST: Well, JC, the President -- I think each of those situations is a little bit different. But we certainly have even worked closely with Russia to reduce our nuclear stockpile, and this is something that the President did early in his tenure. And that, he believes, is in the best interest of not just U.S. national security, but also the safety of citizens and people around the globe. But, certainly, we continue to be focused on these issues.
Q Last Friday, a federal judge appointed by President Obama issued an injunction on a separate immigration executive action, specifically stopping the detention of migrants coming across the border in Texas. Is the Department of Justice going to seek a stay of this injunction in the same way they are seeking a stay --
MR. EARNEST: I'd encourage you to check with DOJ about sort of the next step in that legal process. I do know that the issue in question in that legal proceeding was related to our efforts to address what at the time was a rather urgent situation that we saw a substantial number of unaccompanied minors at the southern border attempting to illegally enter the United States of America. And one of our efforts to try to respond to that situation was to detain recent border-crossers near the border, and to try to find an environment in which families could be detained together, and to try to make sure that we're doing that in the most humane way possible.
So I know that there are some who raised concerns about that policy, but that is what the administration believed was an appropriate way to respond to that urgent situation.
Since that time, we have seen the numbers of undocumented immigrants, particularly unaccompanied minors, in that sector of the border decline substantially. And that's thanks to the comprehensive strategy that this administration has put in place, working with Central American countries, working with our partners in Mexico, and stepping up some of our law enforcement capabilities on the border to try to address the situation. And that situation has -- or at least the urgency of the situation down there has subsided dramatically.
Q -- your administration argued that this detention served as a deterrent to make sure that wasn't another ongoing flood of migrants. That's part of the comprehensive strategy you just mentioned. Is the administration at all concerned now that this deterrent is gone, that you'll see another wave of migrants?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly wasn't the only deterrent. I think the most effective deterrent that we have is to have the President of the United States making very clear that people in Central America should not send their kids on this very dangerous journey; that too often, we saw reports of kids who didn't complete the journey safely, that they were killed. This is a very dangerous trek. In some cases, we saw the kids were actually funneled into human trafficking rings.
So we've continued to make the case very clearly and very publicly that parents should not even contemplate to putting their kids in the hands of human traffickers in trying to move them into the United States illegally. So we've been really clear about that, and that is probably the most effective deterrent that we have. But to the extent that other things can also deter and reinforce that message, we obviously want to support them.
Q The Congressional Budget Office sent a letter to Thad Cochran, scoring the President's executive actions for DACA and DAPA, and it found that his executive actions would actually increase budget deficits by $8.8 billion over the next 10 years. I was wondering if you could square that CBO finding with the President's budget, which claims immigration reform and executive actions would reduce the budget.
MR. EARNEST: We may have to follow up with you on this, because my reading of that report was actually that removing the executive actions would actually add $8 billion to the deficit.
Q Off-budget, you're right. That's if we don't consider -- that's if the payroll taxes from the DAPA and DACA recipients didn't go to the Social Security trust fund. But if the Social Security trust fund exists, if those payroll taxes are going to the Social Security trust fund, then that CBO letter found that the immigration actions do add to the deficit by $8.8 billion over the next 10 years.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I may have somebody who is more steeped in the budgetary details. My understanding is that this would have a positive impact on our deficit precisely because for the first time what we'd be doing is we'd be bringing people out of the shadows and actually making them pay taxes. That would be a good thing for the life of Social Security. It would be a good thing for our economy. And ultimately, it would be a good thing for the deficit. But we can have somebody follow up with you on your -- on what may be a more detailed question.
Q Thank you very much.
MR. EARNEST: Mark.
Q Josh, back on Keystone, does President Obama believe that 2,300 days is a reasonable length of time for the State Department to conduct an evaluation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's certainly fair to suggest that the State Department is conducting an in-depth review. (Laughter.) The other thing that is also true is that there have been some legal proceedings that have interfered with the completion of this review. There was this long-running court case in Nebraska about the proper route of the pipeline. And that certainly did impact the State Department's ability to evaluate the route of the pipeline since it wasn't finalized and was subject to this ultimate court ruling.
But within just the last few weeks the Nebraska court has issued a decision that has finalized the proposal, and now that final proposal can be evaluated by the State Department. That's what they're doing right now.
Q Can you imagine what he would say if he gave you an assignment and you said, I'll get back to you in 2,300 days? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I can't. (Laughter.) I can't.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: I'll give you the last one, Goyal.
Q Two questions here. One, when last year Prime Minister Modi came to the United States, late last year -- and including at the United Nations and at the White House, at the U.N. he announced that India should be a member of the U.N. Security Council, and which President in India also announced and endorsed. What is happening with that membership?
And also Prime Minister Modi addressed in Washington the U.S.-India Business Council and calling on the Fortune 500 companies make in India, which will create thousands of jobs in the U.S. and thousands of jobs in India. So what's happening with that issue? And the two leaders also set up a hotline. The two have spoken ever since his visit to the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Goyal, I can tell you as it relates to India's membership on the Security Council, I know the President endorsed them acceding to the Security Council in the context of a variety of other important reforms to the operations of the United Nations. I don't have an update for you on the status of those ongoing reforms, or at least efforts to try to bring about some of those reforms. But I'm sure my colleagues in Ambassador Power's office can give you some additional information on this.
Goyal, the President often discusses his view that we need to have more products that are stamped with Made in America and that that would be good for the U.S. economy. It would be good for job creation. The President also does believe that, as Indian consumers have the opportunity to buy American goods, that it could be good for the Indian economy, as well.
So the President did have the opportunity to discuss some of these economic issues and our trade relationship with India. In the context of his visit to India just last month, the President spent a lot of time with Prime Minister Modi and they spent a lot of time talking about some of these economic issues.
You'll recall that there was a CEO summit in the context of those meeting, and that there were American and Indian business leaders that spent some time talking through some of these issues. And the President himself had the opportunity to sit down at a roundtable with a couple dozen of them and talk about some of the challenges that they face as they try to do more business together in a way that benefits the economies and job creation in both countries.
So there is an opportunity for us to try to advance the interests of both our countries by working together and by coordinating our efforts. And the President is certainly committed to that, again, in part, because the substantial economic benefits that could be enjoyed by the American people. And that ultimately is his goal.
I know that Prime Minister Modi has a similar interest. And I don't know of any recent conversations that they have had, but that continues to be a priority of both the President and his administration.
Q Second, Josh, as far as the immigration is concerned, when President issued executive order millions of people were happy in that they will come out of the shadow. Now they're confused. What message you think President has for them? They are waiting to come out of the shadow and apply for their status.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Goyal, this is something that we are concerned about. The President does believe and we have said on many occasions that we believe that there is a very clear precedent for the executive actions the President announced at the end of last year; that taking executive action to try to address some elements of our broken immigration system is consistent with the way that Presidents of both parties for several decades have used their executive authority.
And there is no doubt that these kinds of changes would be good for our economy, would be good for job creation, and would be good for bringing about greater accountability to our immigration system. And that ultimately is what the President believes is the benefit here -- that we can bring millions of people out of the shadows, that we can make them submit to a background check, that they will pay taxes, and that they can also get a work permit and they can start contributing to this country in a way that doesn't require them to live in fear of being deported at a moment's notice and separated from their families.
Now, this, of course, does not apply to people who have recently crossed the border. In fact, we want to focus our enforcement efforts on people who have recently crossed the border and on others who may pose a threat to community safety or national security. But that is the crux of this debate, and we're going to continue to move this through the legal process because we're confident that the strongest legal arguments around on our side.
2:13 P.M. EST
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